A Plain Song for Comadre*
Though the unseen may vanish, though insight fails
And doubter and downcast saint
Join in the same complaint,
What holy things were ever frightened off
By a fly's buzz, or itches, or a cough?
Harder than nails
They are, more warmly constant than the sun,
At whose continual sign
The dimly prompted vine
Upbraids itself to a green excellence.
What evening, when the slow and forced expense
Of sweat is done,
Does not the dark come flooding the straight furrow
Or filling the well-made bowl?
What night will not the whole
Sky with its clear studs and steady spheres
Turn on a sound chimney? It is seventeen years
That Bruna Sandoval has kept the church
Of San Ysidro,** sweeping
And scrubbing the aisles, keeping
The candlesticks and the plaster faces bright,
And seen no visions but the thing done right
From the clay porch
To the white altar. For love and in all weathers
This is what she has done.
Sometimes the early sun
Shines as she flings the scrubwater out, with a crash
Of grimy rainbows, and the stained suds flash
Richard Wilbur 1956
*Peasant woman (Spanish); also, midwife, god-mother, neighbor. Plain song: or plainsong; the unisonous vocal music of the early Christian Church; also, any simple melody.
**Village in San Diego County, near the Mexican border.
What a remarkable story this poem tells; what a difficult and singluar thing this Bruna Sandoval has done! To keep the church sparkling and alive, to keep her faith and holiness intact for seventeen years, why, are truly admirable. Why, you might ask, is this so striking? I would answer that change is so constant, so inevitable, that maintaining stability is a feat. "A Plain Song..." discusses weighter issues than mere constancy; rather, it addresses true holiness and devotion in both cosmic and personal terms.
It begins generally, putting forth the abstract (but very real) idea of truly holy things. Human conditions fail; our unseen parts (beliefs, emotions, trust, etc.) "may vanish," and our insight and rationality may disappoint, evoking in doubter and downcast saint the same complaint. I take this complaint to be the complaint of avbsence, of Godlessness. Because their flimsy human intuitions fail, they lose faith in God. The narrator then rejects their faithlessness, asking, "what holy things were ever frightened off / by a fly's buzz, or itches, or a cough?" Authentic holiness is not so fragile.
Holy things are, instead, "more warmly constant than the sun," prompting the elements of nature to reimagine themselves "to a green excellence." Here the poem nods to inevitable trials en route to holiness, noting the "slow and forced expense / of sweat" and the dark that comes "flooding the straight furrow / or filling the well-made bowl." Importantly, the darkness interacts with the artifacts of human toil, the furrow and the bowl. The poem achieves a wonderful balance between a cosmic sanctity and a personal simplicity. The next lines mingle the two, stating, "What night will not the whole / sky with its clear studs and steady spheres / turn on a sound chimney?" Planets and chimneys sit side by side in the poem's vision of holiness, perhaps signifying the spirituality in everyday things.
I have talked a lot about holy things without actually discussing what they are, though I hinted that they might be the simple things in life, the relics of our hard work. Enter Bruna Sandoval, seventeen year church caretaker, and example of one who lives in holiness. Her spirituality is not in question; the final lines establish it in stating "Sometimes the early sun / Shiines as she flings the scrubwater out, with a crash / Of grimy rainbows, and the stained suds flash / Like angel-feathers." We may look at her specific case, then, to uncover what constitutes holiness and perhaps what we can do to capture it as well.
She is holy simply and purely by seeing things "done right;" sweeping the altar, cleaning the saints, polishing the candlesticks, and doing the laundry. She has not had any prophetic visions to solidify her faith, and so we should not expect any, the poem perhaps implies. What we have, then, is a surprisingly simple vision of holiness: hard work and faith. An acceptance of the simple things. A revaluation of space. She sustains a constancy by appreciating her space; I suggest that she sustains this holiness by folding it into her surroundings. She has done this "For love and in all weathers." Simply remarkable.
Finally, then, I question whether this is possible; I would answer yes, but, like for Bruna Sandoval, it takes a lifetime of hard work, love, and meditation. More purely, it requires a faith and appreciation of our surroundings difficult to find. I think that it admires a way of life that most cannot fulfill. Positively, though, it suggests that, with work similar to Bruna's, we can find some kind of this balance, if internal. I would actually argue, too, that the crucial pieces of Bruna's constancy are internal: the kind of peace that comes with a job well done and a reinvigoration of space. These are the truly holy things in our lives. They are perhaps not the only ones, but "A Plain Song for Comadre" concerns itself with them so that we may as well.